The New England Patriots destroyed the Houston Texans on “Monday Night Football” this week, 42-14.
In four of their past six games, the Tom Brady-led offense has scored 40 or more points, with a high of 59 against the Colts on Nov. 18. And, New England leads the NFL in total offense, rolling to more than 425 yards per game, and scoring (36.3 points per game).
In short, the Patriots team that San Francisco will face Sunday night on national television is like no other team the Niners have faced this year.
San Francisco not only has to fly across country and play in what’s expected to be cold and wet conditions, but in order to win it’s going to have to find a way to stop the Patriots’ scoring machine.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh said the 49ers (9-3-1) have been studying tapes of the Patriots (10-3) and looking for answers.
“(They have a) really good scheme, really good play-calling and then great individual effort at each position,” Harbaugh told New England-area reporters in a conference call this week. “(And) great ability they have to play as a team. So, you could talk for hours about how good they are.”
But, the Niners have have some advantages that other teams don’t.
For one, San Francisco’s defense has been among the best in the NFL over the past two seasons. The Niners rank No. 2 in the league in total defense and first in scoring defense (just 14.2 points per game).
And for another, the 49ers pass rush could put some extra heat on Brady. Linebacker Aldon Smith leads the NFL in sacks and, as a team, San Francisco is 10th in the league with 32 sacks. And if the Pats concentrate on stopping Aldon Smith, that could open the door for Justin Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman to get to Brady.
But as Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee notes, perhaps the 49ers are more suited to match up with the Patriots than other teams because of their nickel defense and personnel.
Barrows writes that the Patriots’ offense is especially effective because it runs plays out of spread, multi-receiver formations, forcing defenses to use a fifth (nickel) defensive back – and then it runs up the middle against fewer linebackers.
“The 49ers, however, have one of the best nickel defenses in the league, one that fares particularly well against the run because it employs two inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman,” Barrows writes. Plus, safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are particularly strong against the run, and don’t necessarily have to play up tight.
The Niners think their ability to play well in the nickel could be a key in their matchup with Brady & Co.
“I would say that it evens things out,” Whitner told Barrows. “When they watch our film, they see that. When we watch our film, we see that. And I believe it’s going to be a good game, just because of that.”